What Owners Need to Know About Equine Euthanasia

Learn about the AAEP’s euthanasia guidelines and how to cope with the loss of an equine partner.
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What Owners Need to Know About Equine Euthanasia
Having the option to euthanize is a gift, but deciding whether to do so can be difficult. | Photo: iStock

The word euthanasia was first used in the early 17th century to indicate an easy death, having originated from the Greek eu (well) and thanatos (death). We all dread the day we will lose a special horse, but the opportunity to make the transition “easy” can bring peace in a tragic situation.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Guidelines for Equine Euthanasia are available at aaep.org/euthanasia-guidelines. These not only guide veterinarians on how to euthanize a horse but also when. The criteria provided can assist you in making the difficult decision to say goodbye to your beloved animal.

Having the option to euthanize is a special gift, but deciding whether to do so can be extremely difficult. By objectively reviewing the guidelines with your veterinarian, you can determine if your animal has a good quality of life, a life worth living. A delayed death is a welfare concern if he or she is in pain or suffering from an unmanageable condition. The goal is to be on the lookout for signs from your horse that euthanasia is the most humane option.

A horse should not have to endure:

  • Continuous or unmanageable pain from a chronic or incurable condition.
  • A medical condition or surgical procedure that introduces a poor prognosis for a good quality of life.
  • Continuous analgesic medication and/or box stall confinement for pain relief for the rest of his or her life.
  • An unmanageable medical or behavioral condition that renders him or her a hazard to him/herself or handlers.

Understanding the Process

During the euthanasia procedure, follow your veterinarian’s advice to keep yourself safe, as horses can lie down abruptly and move their limbs even after brain death has occurred. You might prefer to have the vet tech or an experienced friend hold the horse for you. Your veterinarian will determine the safest location on the property for the procedure and transport after, as appropriate. He or she will also determine whether to administer sedation to keep your horse calm.

The AAEP deems the following euthanasia techniques acceptable by properly trained personnel:

  • Lethal dose of barbiturate (pentobarbital) via intravenous (IV) injection. In some regions, carcass disposal options after euthanasia with barbiturates are limited and costly. Improper disposal of animal carcasses presents environmental, animal, and public health concerns.
  • Gunshot to the brain. This is a very fast technique that’s especially helpful in remote settings or when an equine veterinarian cannot reach a catastrophically injured horse immediately.
  • Captive bolt to the brain. Most vets use a secondary step after this technique, such as pithing or exsanguination.
  • Intrathecal lidocaine (a common anesthetic injected in this case into the spinal canal) with the horse under general anesthesia. This technique has been used in developing countries or remote settings and is gaining in ­popularity where barbiturates are no longer ­allowed. It begins with administration of an IV injection so the horse lies down and becomes unconscious. Then the vet inserts a needle behind the horse’s ears until he or she reaches cerebrospinal fluid around the spinal cord, then injects a large syringe of lidocaine.
  • Potassium chloride or magnesium sulfate with the horse under general anesthesia. The veterinarian begins the technique by administering an IV injection so the horse lies down and becomes unconscious. Then he or she administers a very concentrated solution to the horse, also in the vein.

Coping With Loss

You’ll likely go through a period of grieving after the euthanasia. Here are some ideas that might help you cope:

  • Talk to your veterinarian about what happened. You might have questions now, especially if you were fearful and stressed prior to the euthanasia. Don’t be afraid to ask, because the knowledge and understanding gained can provide closure that you did what was best for your horse.
  • Identify friends or family you’re comfortable talking to about the loss of your horse.
  • Search for a pet loss support group in your community or online.
  • Post on social media and ask friends to share their favorite memories or pictures of your horse.
  • Plan a celebration of life gathering at your home or barn.
  • Display a braid of mane or tail hair, a piece of tack, or a photo of your horse. Several companies create jewelry or decor to commemorate special horses.

Also, please be kind, and do not judge others for euthanizing their horse. Whether they are at your barn or halfway across the world, this is likely a very emotional process for them, too.

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Written by:

Alina Vale, DVM, is based in San Diego, California, and works as a regulatory veterinarian for various equestrian disciplines and organizations. She is passionate about promoting the humane use of horses and chairs the AAEP’s Welfare & Public Policy Advisory Council.

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